Welcome to Seattle, Al Gore—Can UW Startups Get Some VC Love?

10/24/08Follow @gthuang

Back in August, Luke sat down with the University of Washington’s incoming Vice Provost for Technology Transfer, Linden Rhoads. The serial tech entrepreneur talked about taking charge of the university’s tech transfer office, and how one of her top priorities was to meet with venture capitalists in the Northwest and in the San Francisco Bay Area, to let them know the UW is open for business.

Well, today she’s having lunch with Al Gore, who happens to be a venture partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (in addition to his advisory roles with Apple and Google, and just a few other commitments). Gore is in town for a fund-raiser with Governor Chris Gregoire. Rhoads, a longtime Democratic Party activist and contributor, will fill him in on the UW’s new College of the Environment, and the work the university has done on the state’s Cleantech Initiative. Joining them for lunch is Alvin Kwiram, professor emeritus of chemistry and former vice provost for research at the UW.

I learned about all this when I spoke with Rhoads this morning about her latest news, the hiring of Janis Machala to head up UW TechTransfer’s LaunchPad program to help UW researchers start new companies. Machala is the founder of Paladin Partners, was CEO of Pinnacle Publishing, and was a senior manager at Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and Wang Laboratories. She had worked with Rhoads at ChiliSoft, which was acquired by Cobalt Networks in 2000. Rhoads calls her a “most respected mentor in the community.”

LaunchPad isn’t a new program, but Rhoads is clearly putting her stamp on it. Last summer, I spoke with Jim Roberts, LaunchPad’s business development officer, about its goals and achievements; he was half-time on it then, and he’s full-time now. Machala, who starts on November 1, is charged with working with all the UW’s licensing officers “to provide the best possible advice and help and networking for our researchers who have entrepreneurial plans,” says Rhoads, who’s an Xconomist.

Rhoads also talked about getting involved with researchers further upstream in the innovation pipeline. “We’re trying to be very proactive,” she says. Usually, a researcher discloses an invention, she says, and then tech transfer decides whether it’s marketable, or whether to start a company. “We want to get involved years before that point,” says Rhoads. “We want to help them meet the right members of the industry and investor community.” To that end, Machala will help start an entrepreneurs-in-residence program, whereby five or six entrepreneurs at a time are matched up with appropriate faculty members to give support and advice.

I asked Rhoads about her experience so far in meeting with venture capitalists (besides Gore). “They’re really excited about the opportunity,” she replied. “They need personnel within tech transfer who are very informed and knowledgable as to the investment profile that a given venture firm is interested in… We can’t just have them ‘walk the halls,’ we have to call them when there’s an opportunity.” When asked for any particularly supportive VC firms in town, Rhoads rattled off a list that included Arch Venture Partners, OVP, Benchmark Capital, Second Avenue Partners, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. She also mentioned WRF Capital, a venture organization with ties to the UW, which Luke recently profiled. “They’re trying to make money like any VC firm. Yet they have experience working with us. They’ll be an invaluable partner,” she said.

As for specific ways to make it easier for venture firms and others to work with UW TechTransfer, Rhoads gave the example that a firm may want to license an existing technology, but the contract will typically say that if the researchers (or their students) discover something new that’s related to the technology, the firm will have to come back and renegotiate a new license. “We’re trying to think less in terms of patents, and more in the project sense,” says Rhoads, suggesting that future licenses could cover work that’s still underway. “Nobody has to be the intellectual-property police.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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